This is not an exit

The importance of going local

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 12:55 am
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in what is probably the most popular journalism movie of all time.

You ever see All The President’s Men?

You really should; it’s a great flick. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was known as the movie that launched a thousand journalism careers. And with good reason. It’s tough to keep yourself from wondering what kind of stuff you could unearth with enough persistence.

But alas, the world is changing.

Publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times used to be where it was at. Well, for me, anyway. I’m not saying I would turn down a job at any of those publications if I had the opportunity. What I’m getting at is that, as the world of our profession changes, we’ve gotta change how we play the game.

The New York Times, for one, has steadily seen its print readership decrease ever since the widespread adoption of the Internet as a primary source of news. After all, prior to April 2011, the publication’s online product was free for many years. Why pay for something tangible when you can get the same information in digital form?

The problem isn’t specific to the Times. Newspapers everywhere, from New York to the tiny burg of McMinnville, Ore. are struggling with the same quandary: How do we make news profitable again?

It may seem a bit greedy, but you’ve got to understand: Those reporters need to make a living somehow. Most everything that’s posted on the Internet — well, the stuff that’s worth reading, anyway — needs to be funded somehow. The people who write these words have to make a living.

But there are only so many who can work for CNN, Fox or The Huffington Post. So what’s a journalist to do these days? People have a multitude of choices when it comes to national and international news coverage.

Revolt in the Middle East?

The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN and the Associated Press have got it covered.

Major quake in Japan?

The same networks have got it on lockdown. And everyone’s reporting the same thing.

So what can you give your readers that these juggernauts can’t?

I think Pia Hallenberg, reporter for The Spokesman-Review in Washington says it best.

“CNN is not going to cover my town unless something explodes,” she told a group of college journalists during a conference in Richland, Wash.

That’s right: go local. (Big surprise, eh? After all, that is the title of the post)

Who else is going to report on your small-town high school softball team’s 11-game winning streak? Sports Illustrated may not be interested. Or what about the park designed for use exclusively by small dogs created in memory of a puppy that met an untimely death? You can bet The New York Times and Huffington Post have a cache of stories just like it.

The difference between what The Times and Post publish and the aforementioned stories is that your readers crave the local stuff. Sure, they want to know about the Japan earthquake and Middle Eastern revolutions. But they’re already getting that news elsewhere. Only you can provide them with glimpses into their own backyards.

Tom Hallman, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Oregonian, spoke at the same conference as Hallenberg and further emphasized the importance of going local.

“Readers read for emotion, they don’t read for facts,” he said. “They read because they want to feel something.”

And while a story about a middle school closing its doors in Western Oregon won’t rock the nation, it means something to the people living in that community. It affects their daily lives. It affects their children’s lives. It affects the lives of the displaced teachers, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, the list goes on.

Then there are stories like the Salem hairstylist who took her services to Mexico on a mission trip. This is the kind of stuff you need to keep an eye out for. These are the stories that won’t come to you through press releases or by covering board meetings.

“The stories that are within your community aren’t waiting for you with red flags saying ‘report me,'” Hallman said. “You cannot sit at your desk and wait for the big story to hit.”

The news you unearth yourself is the most rewarding to report. That’s the connection you can share with Woodward and Bernstein (or Redford and Hoffman.) A lot of the stories we get these days are delivered directly to us. It’s when we take a look at our own backyards with fresh eyes that we find the true meaning of what we do as journalists. Remember: A good story might not be able to change the world, but it can change yours.

Got a story to tell? I’m listening.

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